Regaining my senses that rainy afternoon after my birthday dinner, I discovered my wallet was missing.
After calling the restaurant and the friend who hosted drinks later, I accepted the unpleasant realization that my wallet had slipped from my pocket somewhere on Kirkwood Drive in Laurel Canyon. I called the credit card companies but nothing had been charged to my accounts. When the rains stopped the following day, I searched through the foul debris by the massive mouths of the sewer drains. While I did find some lost master recordings by The Doors and a Charles Manson timeline board game, it appeared that my wallet now swam with the toxic fishes in Santa Monica Bay. Worse yet, I'd lost my driver's license.
That meant I had to visit the state agency entrusted with regulating our most precious utility. If you think that means electricity, perhaps you've had the sunroof open too long. The truth is, the threat of the dreaded "rolling blackouts" exists only for those who leave their autos. Many of those irritating sport-utility vehicles contain more creature comforts than can be found in homes in developing countries. With portable generators under the hood, an Angeleno can watch TV or movie tapes and DVDs, drink a cold beverage from the built-in icebox and talk on the mobile phone, without ever having to leave the driveway.
The price for this convenience? Well, that's where matters get murky and the quagmire of the Department of Motor Vehicles takes nebulous shape. Leaving aside the damage to the environment from the fossil fuel consumption, not to mention the terrifically bad driving habits fostered by feeling that we're invincible in our autos, the real problem with our cars is our dependence on them for survival. The state of California knows this, and it forces an unpleasant monopoly down our throats and into our wallets.
In fact, we pay far more for the privilege of driving than do people in other states. In that reverse economy of scale that only governments can entertain, we pay more because there are more cars on the road, hence more revenue to be generated. The argument offered is that more needs to be done to keep those home extensions of ours safe on the roads and to provide the excellent service we've come to expect from the DMV.
So while my wallet luxuriated beneath the waves, I went surfing the DMV.
I started by calling the 800 number for an appointment. I decided to go to the branch nearest me, on Cole Avenue in Hollywood, for my 3:35 p.m. on a Monday. A friend jokingly said I should go to the location in Santa Barbara since, even with the drive factored in, it would be faster. Funny, I thought, but with scheduling in five-minute increments, it couldn't be that bad.
Once there, I grabbed the appropriate form and joined the appointment line, while a woman behind the man behind the woman behind the counter repeated her announcements in rapid triplicate (most popular was the one referring people to the Vine Street location). At 3:30, the line stood 19 deep and showed no signs of movement. The walk-in line (for those souls without appointments) was a mob of more than 100 snaking through the ropes. At least that one was moving.
As I waited, the sight of a very pregnant woman ahead of me made me feel worse. How many months along had she been when she arrived? I tried to lighten the mood by suggesting she alert her obstetrician, as the baby might exit before she did. Breathe, I thought, breathe.
At this point, someone tapped my shoulder. "Is your form filled out?" he asked. Where did I recognize him from? He took my application and stapled another document to it. Then I realized that he was the guy from behind the woman behind the counter. "Hand this to the agent as soon as you get there." Finally, things were happening.
I looked down at the new form to discover that I'd been handed an efficiency survey. He'd filled in: number of people in line, 22. My position in line, 19. Time, 4 p.m. Had it been that long?
Before I could give the subject more thought, a panicked woman rushed in screaming, "Accident, accident." A beefy security guard waddled through the sliding doors to investigate. A surfer type strolled in and explained that a teenager taking a road test had sideswiped a few cars and driven up on the sidewalk. Where was I parked? It hadn't occurred to me that this is likely one of the most dangerous parking locations known to man.
Now a voice from behind me. "My father always described lines by cigars," he began, to the apparently uncomprehending man behind him in our line. "This is a four, maybe five, cigar wait." He didn't seem to notice that his punch line fell flat because all eyes were now fixed on a crisis brewing at the counter. A large Russian woman had ignored the line and had sat her considerable girth down under the disabled persons sign.
"You take my forms," she declared to a woman who'd just then appeared at the desk. "I went car to get money."
"It wasn't me," the clerk replied, confused but patiently offering to try to help once she'd finished the task at hand. This only seemed to anger the Russian.
"It was you, I give my form you!" she exclaimed. How often had this scene played itself out all over the former Soviet Union back in the gray days before glasnost?
Stockholm syndrome is the condition when hostages begin to sympathize with their keepers. Suddenly, I was on their side. I felt a certain elation when a formidable supervisor felt this had gone on long enough and stepped from her cubicle. Air displacement alone could have forced a solution, but it was the commanding way in which she told the Russian woman that she was mistaken that brought this battle of the big-boned titans to a close.
A certain kind of person chooses to work in a job like that, and from my experience in other states, there is a strange cloning program in effect. Despite race and gender, people who work in the DMV seem to have been cleaved from some genetic Eve. This inbreeding has apparently manifested itself in some savant-like superpowers. A friend's post-menopausal mother was surprised to discover that her new license certified her to drive motorcycles. The only reason she could ascribe for this was that she had worn a long black leather coat to the DMV.
Sometimes these savant powers take a more disturbing form. Years ago, a German friend failed his first attempt at the road test and was told he had to wait two weeks before trying again. He pleaded with the test administrator to let him take it sooner because he was going to Munich for the summer. After looking around to make sure no one was listening, the administrator made some odd inquiries about the role of my friend's family in World War II. Uncomfortable, my friend responded with his own series of discreet questions. He then provided a polite mention of their service in the Wehrmacht, and the test administrator excitedly offered to pass my friend if he agreed to send some war memorabilia.
How long had I been waiting? I tried to spot a clock, but there were none in view. It seems a lot of public offices that encourage long waits remove all indicators of time. No doubt this is to relieve anxiety. Since I avoid wearing a watch, I use the clock on my cellular phone. My phone, where was my phone? Thinking I would be in the DMV for a few minutes, I had left it in the car.
Maybe I could guess the time based on the position of the sun. I couldn't tell from the two scratched panes of plexiglass next to the front door, and there were few other windows. Perhaps this was to discourage drive-by shootings.
Alas, as the minutes ground past, we discovered the pregnant woman had an internal clock--her bladder. She asked me to keep her place while she heeded the call. She had been standing, she said, for over an hour. When she returned, she glanced apologetically at those behind her and grabbed a chair, which she moved into the line. She was going to be a wise mother.
I finally reached the counter 90 minutes into my wait. The girl took my forms and efficiency survey, asked for a check and whether I wanted my original photo. The entire transaction took five minutes.
I had elected to keep the same photo because taking a new one would have meant waiting longer. Now, however, I found myself staring at someone who looked like an inmate furloughed from San Quentin. I realized that the lasting effect of my forced captivity and exposure to people like cigar man and form lady was being forced to retain the photo, the one with the angry look engendered by a DMV visit years before.
On the bright side, thanks to new state legislation, I received a rebate check from the state for my new car's documentation fee. Maybe it will be enough to cover my blackouts-era electric bill.